Ah, Christmas. There’s something about the yuletide holiday that lends itself well to horror movies. When it comes to movies about psychotic killers, Christmas is right up there with Halloween. Since the central Christmas figure in the capitalistic world is Santa Claus, it figures that many slasher movies would feature madmen dressed as Jolly Old Saint Nick. When people think of killer Santas, the film that comes immediately to mind is 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. However, four years earlier, writer/director Lewis Jackson traveled that route with his now-classic Christmas Evil.
Christmas Evil begins in 1947 with the Stadling boys, Harry and Philip, sneakily hiding on the staircase and watching Santa deliver their gifts. The boys observe Santa groping their mother and, not realizing that Santa is actually their father in disguise, Harry is traumatized. Years later, the grown up Harry (Brandon Maggart from Dressed to Kill) works at the Jolly Dreams toy factory and keeps track of all of the children in the neighborhood, writing down every instance of naughty and nice for each child. He does not stop with the kids, though; he also witnesses poor behavior from his bosses and coworkers at the factory. Pushed over the edge by the greed and selfishness of the people around him, the unstable Harry has a breakdown and begins to believe that he is the real Santa. After stealing toys from the factory and delivering them to a children’s hospital, Harry slaughters a group of churchgoers with weapons he fashioned out of toy soldiers. Reports of a “Killer Santa” spread through town, and Harry’s brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn, better known as Dale from “The Walking Dead”) has the sneaking suspicion it’s his crazy brother who’s responsible for the murders. Harry continues to spread bad tidings throughout the night while Phil desperately tries to track him down and end his rampage.
Also known as You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland, there are a ton of things about Christmas Evil that look and feel familiar. Although original in its own right, Lewis Jackson’s script recalls many of the psychological tropes of killer maniac movies. It fits in perfectly within the context of the golden age of slasher movies, yet has a much more sympathetic view of the killer. The character of Harry falls somewhere between American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and One Hour Photo’s Sy Parrish; he means well, but is very misunderstood, and in the end he just can’t help himself. Instead of being naturally charming, like Bateman, or seemingly harmless, like Parrish, Harry uses the Santa suit to disarm people. His victims trust him – even invite him into their homes – because he is dressed as Santa. In one scene, an angry mob comes after him and he is saved by a group of children who believe that they are saving the real Santa Claus. The Santa suit also serves as a pretty good disguise, as the film’s iconic image is one of a group of Santas in a police lineup after the cops go out and arrest every Santa they can find, hoping to nab the murderer. Harry’s misdeeds send the entire city into a paranoid panic, one that is illustrated in another filmic homage as the townspeople chase Harry down Frankenstein-like, flaming torches and all. The sympathetic view of Harry is what sets Christmas Evil apart from other killer Santa movies.
At its root, Christmas Evil is a slasher movie and, having been released in the same year as Friday the 13th, it is a product of its time. The murders themselves, courtesy of special effects makeup man Tom Brumberger (Alone in the Dark, Don’t Go in the House), are pretty standard slasher fare, but are very well executed. Harry kills with everything from toy soldiers and replica tomahawks to his bare hands, and blood spills everywhere. While it’s nothing terribly inventive, the effects all look good and contribute to the overall effectiveness of Christmas Evil.
Although credited to Don Christensen, Joel Harris, and Julia Heyward (none of whom have any other feature film credits), the music in Christmas Evil is mostly bastardized Christmas carols, with some cacophonous din thrown in for good measure. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack works. The twisted versions of familiar songs let the viewer know that it’s a Christmas movie, but a non-traditional one. The atonal swarming buzzsaw sounds that accompany the really brutal parts of the movie just serve to make the audience that much more uncomfortable. The dichotomy between the fun Christmas carols and the deranged noise keeps the viewers of Christmas Evil on their toes.
Another aspect of Christmas Evil that must be addressed is the ending. In short…ignore it. The film builds up to a great climax that is completely ruined by the last few frames. It is utter silliness, and even in the context of the rest of the campy film, it’s bad. Without spoiling anything, it is the type of ending that comes only when the filmmakers paint themselves into a corner and run out of ideas. Christmas Evil would be a prime candidate for a modern remake, if only so the ending could be fixed.
As the symbol of what is supposed to be a joyous holiday, a killer Santa Claus is an obvious controversial image. Although many more popular films have exploited the Psycho Santa trend, Christmas Evil deserves to be brought up in the same conversation.